All grown up, but no place to go

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THE AMBITIOUS GENERATION: AMERICA'S TEENAGERS, MOTIVATED BUT DIRECTIONLESS By Barbara Schneider and David Stevenson Yale University Press 307 pp., $26

Youth, Oscar Wilde quipped a century ago, is America's oldest tradition. Now that tradition is undergoing profound change. Forget stereotypes of apathetic, unmotivated teen-agers. Think instead of young people with ambition - lots of it - and motivation.

Today's adolescents are the most ambitious teenagers ever, according to the authors of an insightful report, "The Ambitious Generation." Drawing on a landmark study of 7,000 teens, they explain that four decades ago, only 55 percent of high school seniors expected to attend college. Today, 90 percent do. Forty years ago, only 42 percent expected to work in professional jobs. Today, the figure has risen to 70 percent.

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That's the good news. The troubling news comes in the book's subtitle: "America's Teenagers, Motivated But Directionless."

Too often, say Barbara Schneider and David Stevenson, adolescents remain "drifting dreamers," unaware of the steps they must take to achieve their goals. This produces "misaligned ambitions" as students underestimate how much education they will need for their chosen occupations. As a result, the authors caution, many teenagers in the 1990s will not realize their goals.

These heightened ambitions stem in part from changes in the American economy. Real wages for high school graduates have declined, and job instability among white-collar workers has increased. To protect themselves, teenagers believe the way to create a "personal safety net" is through additional education.

Schneider and Stevenson fault two groups - parents and schools - for not doing more to help teens navigate the maze of choices. Many parents, they say, "do not see it as their responsibility to actively help their adolescents plan for their futures." Instead, parents depend on high schools and colleges to fulfill that role.

Well-meaning parents, teachers, and counselors also focus too narrowly on the college-admission process, the authors say, rather than preparing students to succeed once they are admitted.

High schools themselves have changed dramatically. In the 1950s, schools offered a relatively small number of courses, both academic and vocational. Today, the curriculum often includes 200 to 350 courses, creating a "shopping-mall character." Many students make uninformed choices that affect their preparation for college.

Most poignant, perhaps, are the social changes. Extracurricular activities have decreased, giving students few places to go after school. Unlike their counterparts in the 1950s, many do not have long-lasting peer friendships. Few have a steady girlfriend or boyfriend, and some claim they do not even have a best friend.

Smaller families with fewer siblings, more single parents, and more working parents also leave teenagers with fewer connections. Many average 3-1/2 hours alone each day. Although 80 percent work part time, most see no correlation between their jobs and their future plans.

Schneider and Stevenson urge parents to know what their teenagers are studying at school and to offer high levels of support in helping them plan for the future.

"Parents need to do more than communicate to their teenagers the importance of a college education," they write. "They have to take action: accompany adolescents on college visits, arrange for financial assistance, assist in judging the program of a college and whether it is the right one for them."

Schools, the authors add, need to support more activity-based organizations. They must do a better job of helping students find their way through the "curricular maze" of high school. They should offer work programs that help students develop "informed ambitions" about careers.

"The Ambitious Generation" could have used more ambitious editing to eliminate repetition and enliven the writing in places. But its message serves as a useful call to adults who care about young people. Properly heeded, it could be a first step in turning the "drifting dreamers" of a new century into more focused students whose education better matches their impressive ambition.

*Marilyn Gardner is on the Monitor staff.

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